One of the strangest and most dramatic parliamentary terms ended today in bizarre fashion. The fiasco over fiddled expenses has preoccupied Westminster for months but it was helicopters in Afghanistan that dominated PMQs. From whoppers to choppers.
The Speaker seems to have ruled against public lamentations over battlefield casualties and, without these solemnities, our MPs had more time to ask questions and the PM had more time to avoid answering them.
David Cameron said the Afghan mission needed, ‘a tighter definition, greater urgency and more visible progress,’ in order to maintain public support. Brown’s definition was looser rather than tighter. ‘To prevent terrorism coming to the streets of Britain, to build up Afghan forces, to give the Afghans a stake in their own future,’ and, oddly enough, ‘to protect the schools and hospitals denied to them by the activity of the Taleban’. We know about the schools. But the Taleban oppose hospitals too? That’s news.
Cameron pointed out that the Americans have over 100 helicopters in Helmand while we have just thirty. Our respective troop levels are equal. Brown was ready with a boast. Helicopter numbers have recently increased by 60 percent and their capability has increased by 84 percent. He quoted a senior officer who felt the army was perfectly well equipped. Cameron quoted another officer who felt it wasn’t. The Speaker told both leaders to hurry up and let backbenchers get a word in. They ignored him and continued their joust. If the army has 500 choppers in total, said Cameron, why are there only 30 in Afghanistan? Brown replied with impenetrable Stalinist assurances about a £6 billion ten-year plan and ‘a helicopter fund’ to which our allies are contributing.
Cameron ended by questioning the competence of a government that has had more defence ministers than Newcastle Utd has had managers. This prompted Brown to reach for his favourite, and most disingenuous, form of sophistry: ‘I had hoped this debate might have escaped party politics.’ The Tories howled at him. Then it was Nick Clegg’s turn. His loathing of the PM is visible in his taut, quivering posture when he stands up, and Brown responds by glancing away imperiously during the question. Clegg said the PM was ‘busy doing nothing,’ and his attempt to clean up politics had led him to ‘fiddle the figures’. If Clegg planned to attract a headline-grabbing yellow card from the Speaker he was disappointed. And he crammed too many warheads into one missile – electoral reform, the constitution, the banking monopoly, the bonus culture, the expenses issue. His attack was so vague it broke harmlessly over Brown.
Evidently the Prime Minister felt he’d won today. Certainly he got through the session without creating another PMs-say-the-funniest-things moment. He nearly managed it when he promised ‘more Merlin helicopters on the ground,’ but the ominous double entendre passed unnoticed.
Tory backbencher James Paice returned to the chopper issue and exposed the essential mendacity of Brown’s replies. ‘Why does he go on pretending the need has only arisen today?’ Brown repeated his ‘60 percent increase’ claim and blamed the problems caused by adapting helicopters to different terrain and the need for ‘new blades.’ Eight years into the mission and it comes down to putting ‘new blades’ on the machines. That defies belief. As he left the house, Brown tried to strike a note of triumphant self-confidence. It came across as desperate condescension. He advised both opposition parties to spend the summer reflecting on the fact that they had ‘no policies’ to help the British people. That’s like Ceausescu advising his executioners to reflect on the fact that they had no arrest warrant.